The following tribute on Teacher Appreciation Week to an RFH teacher who has passed, Bob Berberich, was originally published in 2015.
They’re the teachers who taught us how to communicate effectively, appreciate the English language and even motivate certain writers (ahem) to write — English teachers.
Sporting those extra large 70s stylish aviator glasses, a pensive writer’s glare and exacting smile, Berberich always seemed to be holding court somewhere with the honors students. He always had them huddled in an RFH corner chatting away about literature, or debating the merits of the writing technique of anyone from the famous author to the nouveau classroom wordsmith.
He was one of those cool teachers. Sometimes real and pseudo intellectual syrupy cool. Sometimes just too cool for my wallabees. Aside from the usual classes, he also taught the unusual and challenging — like the senior honors class, Syracuse English (or SUPA).
Syracuse was tough. It was a class for which one had to qualify to get in; and, Bob Berberich taught it well. As intimidatingly engaging as the advanced class was, if you powered through, it was also the most useful communications class a student could take. It was mostly fair, but sometimes teachers’ critiques were merciless. There was no failing grade, just fear of a crushing teacher review on a cassette tape and the NP (no pass) mark.
On writing days, students would be given a subject on which to hone in and pen, literally, what was supposed to be an effective argumentative essay. Persuasive. It had to be the epitome of “come to my side” persuasive.
It was in this class that I and other future writers first learned the art of good, bad and ugly critiquing through the teachers’ spoken word. We learned to roll with it or let it roll off our novice, know-it-all, pre-college backs.
We also learned that while there was a definitive formula that needed to be followed to get a “pass” on an essay, there were some teachers who had a lot to learn themselves about the art of constructive criticism versus the easier subjective “You suck. You can’t write, because I’m having a bad day and I just don’t like you much, kid. No pass for you!”
Yes, teachers are people, too. And, yes, sometimes you deserved a “no pass.”
Bob Berberich was not one of those bad-day biased critics, though. He had a way of constructively motivating. Yes, that’s a wordy mouthful. Edit: He knew how to inspire good work while respecting your artistic choices. Others who may have taught it still didn’t have quite enough vision to see writing as an art, much less the student as an artist. Berberich did. His expansive vision made learning interesting and even a “no pass” rewarding.
In the Syracuse (SUPA) class, students would be handed their graded essays and a cassette tape to listen to the critique. While students dreaded the sometimes lackadaisical, “just doing my job” reviews left by some teachers who obviously needed a cocktail instead of recording hour, it was always a lesson learned with a fun, constructive (there’s that word again) twist when Berberich was the teacher.
He had his teaching moments — many of them. But there was one stand-out snapshot in the Berberich classroom. A fine, or unrefined, moment it was.
We were asked to write an argumentative essay on the benefits versus detriments of natural gas — choosing a side and effectively convincing the reader of one or the other.
One student wrote all about natural gas, alright. He wrote about, well, farting. There’s just no other way to say it. And why not? Berberich loved it. Why? Because it was well-written and funny, to boot. All fun aside, it accomplished the argumentative format goal.
He used it as an example of a very effective argumentative, yet creative, essay. He had vision. The student’s essay had vision. Let’s say it made some creative noise for a “pass.”
We also debated many of the classics, from poems to novels and even movies. In his classroom, in fact, was where I first saw Casablanca.
I remember so vividly listening to him tell us that Ingrid Bergman was one of the most beautiful women in the world and a wonderful actress. His argument for her being so great was that, among other things, the way she looked at Humphrey Bogart showed an undeniable love.
He said that science has proven that when someone is in love, their pupils dilate uncontrollably and their eyes fill nearly to the verge of tears — thus, the glazed-over look.
It’s kind of what happened to him whenever he talked about writing.
OK, so he conceded that, in all fairness, there was such a thing as drops for the actors’ eyes and angles and lenses. That was part of that longstanding argument. He won his students over with this one. They remembered.
He knew the other side. But he had his and defended it well for us. He said that regardless of all the theories about acting out a scene, with Ingrid Bergman, the science behind glazed in-love eyes coupled with a the power of a good acting job made the moment very real and convincing — just like his moments of convincing many students to respect the art of writing.
And they do.
Bob Berberich passed away many years ago at a young age. RIP, Bob. Thank you for the smile, the sense of humor, the push, the positive constructive criticism and, mostly, the respect for writing.
Share your memories of Bob Berberich with us. Do you remember who wrote the infamous natural gas essay?
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